John H. Shearer: The Teenage Hero of Hanover Junction
Little did teenager John Hinkle Shearer know when he arose from his bed in the train station at Hanover Junction, PA, on Saturday, June 27, 1863, how eventful the day would be. For more than a week, rumors had widely circulated that “the Rebels are coming!” No Confederates had yet appeared but reports from the telegraph office at the railroad station in Gettysburg were ominous. Southern cavalrymen had taken the town the previous afternoon and forced the youthful telegraph operator, Hugh Daniel Scott, to flee.
Shearer likely knew Hugh Scott, who was distantly related to the John Scott family that managed the red-brick Junction Hotel near Shearer’s parents’ house. He also was acquainted with Daniel Trone, the young telegrapher at the train station in Hanover, some nine miles from Hanover Junction.
John had daily access to the telegraph office inside the three-story wood-framed depot at Hanover Junction. He was an apprentice under Howard Scott (likely another of Hugh’s distant relatives), but in his own words, “I had not yet become proficient in the art, but knew somethinng about it.” He was hoping to become a full-time railroad telegrapher, something that several other youths had accomplished after studying at Hanover Junction.
John’s planned pathway would be accelerated by the time the week was out.
The Rebels indeed were coming.
Young Shearer would soon have a fascinating story to tell his grandchildren.
John Hinkle Shearer was born in Hanover Junction on September 18, 1843. He received his education in the public schools of York County. His father was the station agent and a long-time railroad man. John became a telegraph apprentice to Hugh Scott as a result of his father’s connections.
Years later, John left this stirring account of that fateful last Saturday in June 1863 when Lt. Col. Elijah V. White’s 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry came calling. The Rebels had occupied Hanover earlier that day. Before departing, Daniel Trone had wired the station at Hanover Junction that the Rebels were in Hanover and he was packing up his instruments. The Confederates most likely were on their way to Hanover Junction.
I have transcribed Shearer’s remembrance from the November 15, 1912, issue of The Star-Gazette in Elmira, New York, where Shearer spent most of his postwar railroad career.
“I was practicing telegraphy with the operator at Hanover Junction, Pa., in the latter part of June, 1863. I had not yet become proficient in the art, but knew something about it, and was hoping to master it and some day to work for the road. The opportunity came sooner than I expected. At that time the forces of the North and South were gathering for what was soon to shock the world as the battle of Gettysburg. Hanover Junction is located only a few miles from the battlefield [Note: more than 25 miles east of Gettysburg]. One afternoon, I think it was the 27th of June, while a southbound freight was standing at the Hanover Junction station, our attention was attracted by the sound of flying hoofs approaching along the old Seven Valley turnpike, and the next moment, a troop of cavalry dashed into view.
“The crew of the train saw the soldiers as soon as we did. There was a hurried whistle for off brakes, a series of stuttering snorts from the exhaust of the engine and the way that freight hustled out of town was amazing. When it started, the regular night operator took one look at the approaching cavalry and one at the departing train, then legged it just in time to swing board the caboose. I was left in undisputed possession of my first job and was ready to resign the moment I got it.”
John later said he and some companions hid parts of the telegraph under their beds. According to other accounts, the quick-thinking lad tossed the telegraph key out an open window into some bushes. “Lige” White’s cavalrymen did not find it. They took Shearer’s pocket watch, coins, and shoes and sat him on a nearby fence under guard while they tore down the telegraph wires and searched for his telegraph instrument. They did find another one, which they likely presumed was his. Shearer later noted in the Gettysburg Compiler (November 17, 1909) that Hugh Scott had sent the telegraph instrument from Gettysburg to Hanover Junction, where the Rebels burned it [the newspaper had erroneously reported the Gettysburg instrument was safe in York]. Shearer added, “They destroyed a railroad bridge, fourteen cars and a turn table at our place.”
Shearer continued his 1912 narrative in the Elmira Star-Gazette: “The country was filled with Confederate troops for several days, during which time I filled the absent man’s place. Despite my misgivings I was well treated by the men in gray. My duties were more of the caretaker than operator, for all the wires to the south of me [leading to the telegraph station at Glen Rock] had all been cut and there were no trains running. After the troops had retired I was relieved by another man [Daniel Trone, who arrived from Hanover] and continued to practice telegraphy until the following year when I received an appointment as a regular operator.” Shearer could clearly hear the sound of the battle of Gettysburg raging from July 1-3 to the west.
The night operator who had “skedaddled,” to use Shearer’s words, fled to Baltimore and did not return to Hanover Junction for several weeks. In June 1864, Shearer replaced him as night operator at Hanover Junction. After the Civil War, the Northern Central Railway moved him to Harrisburg to the railroad superintendent’s office, where he was again the night operator.
In September 1869, Shearer transferred to the NCR’s northermost depot in Elmira, New York, where he became the train dispatcher and telegraph operator. He was to live in Elmira the rest of his life, returning occasionally to York County for reunions of the Shearer family (for a time, he was president of the family association). The Pennsylvania Railroad (which acquired the NCR) promoted Shearer in 1888 to be in charge of the division’s telegraph and dispatching operations. Still active well into his late sixties, he became known affectionately as “Uncle John” to his younger comrades. He retired on November 1, 1913, having reached the PRR’s mandatory retirement age of 70. An Elmira reporter touted his “unparalleled record” and commented, “Notwithstanding his advanced years, he is a man of magnificent physique, and will doubtless enjoy many years of activity in interests other than railroading.” Among those interests was the local YMCA, of which he was a long-time proponent.
The newsman was correct. John Hinkle Shearer indeed enjoyed “many years of activity.” He died at the age of 85 on March 11, 1929. He is buried in a mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Blogger’s note: I was privileged to give a tour recently of Hanover Junction to two descendants of John’s brother William H. Shearer. They traveled from out of state to see the sites associated with their ancestors. Some of the above information came from them; the rest from the Star-Gazette and The Compiler as cited, with snippets from Armand Glatfelter’s various histories of Seven Valleys and the Codorus region.